Sunday, July 13, 2008

Finding a Trump Card

The card player has ground it out. He's survived, he's played well, and now he smiles to himself. It's the trump card. He has it, and the game changes. This won't be one he grinds out, hoping to survive. This is one he needs to take. He needs to shoot higher.


The Twins missing trump card has become obvious in the last two weeks as three games slipped away. Twice versus Boston and once versus Detroit a game was lost because there wasn't a dominant presence to step on the eighth inning's neck. But it turns out that guy hasn't just been important this year. For the Twins, that second best bullpen guy has mattered a lot, usually being the one of (or even the) most important pitcher on the staff. This year, he's the missing trump card.


That might be hard to believe. We traditionally measure a player's effectiveness using cumulative and full-season statistics, and in that context the best middle reliever doesn't usually shine. After all, they usually only pitch half the innings of even the fourth best starter. Certainly, the market hasn't recognized them as being particularly valuable, with the exception of whoever the Yankees had targeted to serve as a bridge to Mariano Rivera.


But we use those full-season statistics for a reason. We don't know the situation a ballplayer faced when he walked to the plate. It could be when the team was down by five runs with the bases empty, or it could be when the bases were loaded late in a one-run game. We assume that those situations "even out" so we can judge the batter by his overall stats.


But that randomness doesn't apply to the best non-closer in the bullpen. He's only rarely used in games that have been decided. The majority of his appearances happen in close games - and late in close games. His impact on any game in is signficant. And you can see just how significant using the Win Probability Added (WPA) stat.


I could spend the rest of this entry writing a definition of WPA, so let's start with this one from Wikipedia:


Win Probability Added is a technical baseball statistic which attempts to measure a player's win contribution by figuring how much each specific play he made altered the outcome of a game.


There's an elegant beauty about how it's figured with precision, but I don't want to go into all of that. Suffice to say that it gives extra credit for performing in crucial situations, almost no credit for performing in non-crucial situation, and absolutely no credit for fielding, which is probably it's biggest weakness. And it has other limitations, such as difficulty in predicting a player's future impact, since it doesn't know what kind of situations a player will face.


But it is really, really good for evaluating how big an impact a player had on a game or a season. And for the Twins run this decade, it shows just how effective the best non-closer in the bullpen has been. Below is a list of who that player has been each year, and how they ranked against the entire rest of the team (not just pitchers) in WPA:


2002 - JC Romero - Best WPA on the team
2003 - Latroy Hawkins - Best WPA on the team
2004 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2005 - Jesse Crain - 2nd best WPA on the team
2006 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2007 - Pat Neshek - 2nd best WPA on the team
2008 - Matt Guerrier - 6th best WPA on the team


The ability to use a certain player at a certain point is a key weapon for a baseball team, allowing a manager to leverage his best performing players in the most critical situations. A dominant bullpen arm, be it a closer or otherwise, essentially gives the manager a trump card to use wherever and whenever it most suits him.


Gardenhire is doing a decent job of playing the cards he has been dealt, given the injury to Neshek and the decline of Rincon. But as Bill Smith schmoozes this week at the All-Star Game, he needs to understand that the Twins are at least one card short of a winning hand. And it his his responsibility to get that trump card.

Twins Takes

Got an email from a friend this weekend after Saturday's game...

What's Gardenhire's effing problem? Tying run on second, two outs in the eighth, removing Reyes because a righty is now at the plate, and he goes to Bass because it's not yet the ninth so Nathan is off limits? Lame. Bass got out of the inning fine, but these are the kinds of small decisions that do cost teams ballgames.

I can't argue with this. In general, I think the rending of garments about how the Twins use Joe Nathan is misguided, but my friend is right. Nathan had worked both nights before, but he had also thrown just nine pitches in Friday's game. If he isn't used in that situation, exactly when will he be extended? And it further demonstrates the necessity of getting that second dominant bullpen arm.

17 comments:

Twins Fix said...

Fancisco Liriano. He is dominant and is deserving of a shot in the bullpen. The rotation is doing just find, but, as you say, the bullpen needs the most help.

I say stick Liriano in the set-up role for the remainder of 2008. Then they can address other issues, namely third base.

Jake said...

have to say I totally agree with Mr. Fix above. What exactly are we waiting for vis a vi Liriano. Is it the salary of whatever player would be let go? Is it something to do with Lirianos service time? Is it wanting a "veteran" guy in the 8th inning role? or is it some combination of the above. From what I have heard Liriano is lights out in AAA, We could use a little of that in the Pen.

TT said...

"I think the rending of garments about how the Twins use Joe Nathan is misguided, but my friend is right. Nathan had worked both nights before, but he had also thrown just nine pitches in Friday's game. If he isn't used in that situation, exactly when will he be extended?"

So the argument is that Nathan should be warming up every time the Twins have a one run lead in the 8th inning? I think the arguments about closers mostly reflect fan ignorance of how the game is actually played at the major league level.

He is dominant

He wasn't dominant until his last couple starts. He was throwing way too many pitches and not even able to get 6 innings against AAA hitters. He is also the only depth the Twins have in the rotation. Chances are they will need him at some point, lets just hope he is ready.

Nick N. said...

I think the arguments about closers mostly reflect fan ignorance of how the game is actually played at the major league level.

One might argue that arguments in favor of Brian Bass and Livan Hernandez reflect the same ignorance.

He wasn't dominant until his last couple starts. He was throwing way too many pitches and not even able to get 6 innings against AAA hitters.

So what? He made documented changes and as a result he has begun to dominate. Three straight scoreless outings with 10 hits and three walks allowed over 20 innings is pretty substantial.

With that said, the Twins have made it very clear that they have no plans of using Liriano as a reliever and I'm on board with that. He's going to be a starter, let him stick to that role rather than forcing him to adjust to a new one during a major-league pennant race while he's already rehabbing from surgery.

BeefMaster said...

So the argument is that Nathan should be warming up every time the Twins have a one run lead in the 8th inning? I think the arguments about closers mostly reflect fan ignorance of how the game is actually played at the major league level.

Could you expand on that? I'm not sure what you mean by "fan ignorance"... is it that fans don't understand how difficult it is for a closer to throw more than one inning, or is there some other thing here that I'm not aware of?

As for your first question, I'd say that it certainly makes sense for Nathan to occasionally be used earlier, if the situation calls for it and he's able to do so. I don't think it's necessary every time, but when the Twins' good (i.e. "not Bass or Boof") righthanded middle relievers are unavailable, I think it's sensible to use the team's best pitcher in a high-leverage situation.

Anonymous said...

"So the argument is that Nathan should be warming up every time the Twins have a one run lead in the 8th inning? I think the arguments about closers mostly reflect fan ignorance of how the game is actually played at the major league level."

Crain relieved Baker in the 8th with no one out. Then Reyes came in to face a lone lefty with one out. Gardenhire knew as soon as Crain faced his first batter and surrendered a hit that he was going to use a right handed reliever to finish the 8th.

Nathan doesn't have to get up every time the Twins have a lead in the eighth. But when Gardenhire is going to warm up his second righty of the inning, with the lead having been shaved down to one and the tying run on second, picking Bass over Nathan at that point? A hit and the game is tied. Gardenhire knew ahead of time after the first batter Crain faced that a righty would finish the inning and that the tying run was on. He could have used two mound visits/pitching changes to get Nathan loose.

It was poor leveraging.

walter hanson said...

Excuse me. Nathan had throw thirty pitches on Thursday and pitched on Friday. Did you want to risk an injury by having him come in in the eighth.

Oh if Nathan gives up a hit or two to loose the game than you will be saying Nathan shouldn't have been bought in period!

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

TT said...

Could you expand on that?

There are several things I think are just ignored. I think many fans simply want the bullpen managed one game at a time. But the reality is that the success of the bullpen is based on it being managed for the season, not to win one game.

The second is that there is a good reason teams have adopted the one-inning closer. They discovered it works. There are several reasons for that that many fans seem to ignore. Limited work means that a pitcher can throw harder. He can get away with fewer different pitches because teams see less of him.

I think fans ignore the need to warm relievers up. And they ignore the impact of warming up on a reliever in terms of work load. They look at appearances and the pitches thrown in the game as the only issue. Its not just a matter of "getting loose". When a guy is warmed up three days in a row, they are simply not going to be as effective.

They ignore the fact that the manager can't easily predict the future. That he needs is to create a pattern of use that gives a pitcher an appropriate amount of use. There isn't a point at which the closer gets overused and stops being effective, that is something that develops over time as they become less effective. One more inning is never going to be a problem - but eventually those innings will catch up.

Fans also fail to realize that having a lights out closer, changes the way both teams approach earlier in the game.

Fans also look back at a small handful of extraordinary relievers in the past who pitched a lot of innings successfully. They ignore all the pitchers who failed. And they ignore that those guys were used much differently than modern bullpens. They weren't on the mound every time their team had a close lead in late innings. Usually the best starters were still out there with the expectation of finishing the game.

Then Reyes came in to face a lone lefty with one out. Gardenhire knew as soon as Crain faced his first batter and surrendered a hit that he was going to use a right handed reliever to finish the 8th.

I doubt that is true and even if he did he had no way of knowing what the situation would be after Reyes pitched. Would he have called in a righty if Reyes had given up a run? Maybe not. How about a home run? Is it a high leverage situation in 8th inning with the Twins down a run?

He made documented changes and as a result he has begun to dominate.

Pitching less than 6 innings with 9 hits and two homer runs is not dominating. That's is what he did on June 25th. If he made "documented changes" after that start, its pretty silly to suggest three games prove they were successful. Things are looking good for Liriano, but he still hasn't proved anything other than he has a hot hand.

Matt R. said...

"I doubt that is true and even if he did he had no way of knowing what the situation would be after Reyes pitched. Would he have called in a righty if Reyes had given up a run? Maybe not. How about a home run? Is it a high leverage situation in 8th inning with the Twins down a run?"

He has the other teams lineup card. He knows a right-hander is scheduled to bat in the discussed situation. He knows he does not like Reyes pitching to right-handed hitters. Thus, he knows he wants to bring in a right-handed reliever for Reyes. I don't think the logic is that difficult to follow TwinsTroll.

The second part of the quote shows you clearly grabbing at straws. Nathan shouldn't be warmed up because the Twins might be behind after when said batter reaches the plate? I don't think managing with the worst case scenario as your direction is ever a good idea.

The rest of your comments I agree with. People are too quick to question bullpen useage without considering warm up time, the effect of often warming up a pitcher and not using him, and an eye for the big picture not just the game at hand. The anger following the Manny Ramirez 2-run shot game was an example of this lack of perspective. This game does not fall into that category because, as stated above, the need for a 4-outer from Nathan was completely predictable early enough to get him up and ready.

Walter Hanson said...

You know for those people that are discussing how bad Gardy was here:

* The inning started with Scott Baker who had been on cruise control giving up two runs two runs to make it a two run game. Gardy had been hoping that Baker can complete the eighth let alone the ninth. That plan went down the drain.

* Gardy wanting to protect the lead than bought in the best reliever he thought he had for the minute Crain since Gurrerier had also thrown lots of pitches the last two days.

* When Crain than allowed the first two runners he faced to reach than the goal was to get out of the inning. He threw Crain his best right handed reliever to get Detroit's most dangerous right handed batter (Cabera) out. To warm Nathan up here is suicide since you're asking Nathan who has thrown at least 40 pitches to make his first two inning save attempt. Crain gets the out.

Reyes is bought to pitch to the other lefty who hit a two run game. The Detroit manager pitch hits for the hitter (a move you can expect by reading the score card). Still the move is to have Reyes face the lefty or force a weaker pitch hitter into the game. It makes sense.

As Reyes is warming you have to decide on the next move. To warm Nathan up means you will be expecting Nathan who has thrown at least 40 pitches to pitch to at least one batter in the eighth possibly two. Note the on deck hitter is Garry Shelified a dangerous hitter even if he's not having a good year. The decsion to warm up Bass is logical since
he only has to get one out. A job which he did by the way!

Now in all the heat here we're overlooking:

* If Baker has a good eighth inning we don't have this silly discussion.

* If Crain has a 1-2-3 eighth we don't have this silly discussion.

* We're only having this discussion because a couple of fans so desperate to protect a lead in the eighth after Boston took one from us just a couple of days earlier to bring in Nathan to protect the lead. Note we will be have a very different and angry discussion if Nathan is bought in and the lead is blown something which TT and others are not assuming.

Furthermore as I demonstrated here you have the situation until Crain strikes out Cabera it is a two inning save situation not the just four out save situation you're talking.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

TT said...

I don't think managing with the worst case scenario as your direction is ever a good idea.

A hitter getting a single to score the runner is hardly a "worst case scenario". Then you are bringing your closer into a tie game in the bottom of the 8th on the road.

Managing for the best case scenario isn't a good idea either. The question is how would the season play out if you consistently used your closer to get one batter out in the 8th. Because if you do, you are going to have best cases and worst cases happen.

This is "mission creep". You have a guy who closes the door after everyone else has done their jobs to win the game. And then you start to try to expand his role. Why stop there? Afterall, is Reyes really a better choice than Nathan even against a lefty. Shouldn't you use your best reliever to get both guys out if you are going to warm him up anyway? And if he is going to face two batters anyway, why not bring him to start the inning before the runner gets on base in the first place ...iavya

Anonymous said...

The question is how would the season play out if you consistently used your closer to get one batter out in the 8th.

I take this to be precisely the wrong question to ask. I propose these questions instead:

1. Are there ever situations where a manager ought to extend out a closer's role beyond one inning?
2. Ought the Bosox game be regarded as representing one of those situations?

Most would agree, I think, that the answer to the first question is an unequivocal "Yes." Were we considering a playoff game, or even a pivotal late season game, I imagine most everyone would defend the use of Nathan to secure one or more outs in the eighth. To suggest that a manager should never use his closer to get a batter out in the eighth, or to suggest that by doing so it follows inevitably that he must always use a closer to get a batter out in the eighth, is to ignore the relevant contingencies that make using the closer right in one instance and wrong in another. Which is to say that you're committing the fallacy of the slippery slope.

As to what those relevant contingencies are or ought to be, that's likely where opinions are going to diverge. If one believes, as most MLB managers seem to believe, that one contingency -- the proximity of a game vis-a-vis the post-season (call it the "proximity contingency") -- trumps all others, than likely one will never be in favor of using a closer in the eighth inning of a road game in July. But consider...

I'd argue there two reasons why managers believe the "proximity contingency" justifies their extending a closer's role. The reasons:

1. Closer "overuse" is not a concern. In the case of the late season/post-season game, there's not much "rest of the season" to worry about.
2. The game is especially significant relative to a regular season game.

If these are the necessary and sufficient reasons behind the universally-supported managerial move to extend a closer's role in or near the post-season, than oughtn't they serve as necessary and sufficient reasons to extend a closer's role at any point during the season? Put another way, if one can demonstrate that these reasons argue for the extension of a closer's role in a July road game, than haven't we justified extending the closer's role in that game?

I'd say we have. Furthermore, I think a strong case can be made that these reasons argued for the extension of Nathan's role in the Bosox game under review.

Let's take the reasons in reverse order. Was the game especially significant relative to most regular season games? I'd say it was for reasons I take as self-evident and which I won't enumerate so as not to make a long post longer.

Was closer overuse a concern? Given that Nathan hadn't before been used in the eighth, presumably not. Presumably he could have handled the extra workload. But what if Gardenhire had been using our two reasons to extend Nathan's role for the whole year? Wouldn't closer overuse be a serious concern by now?

I don't think so. TT's post suggests that if we extend Nathan's role in every significant (eighth inning) moment of typical games , we'll see steadily diminishing returns with the overuse. Granted. However, I think it's reasonable to believe that if Gardenhire extends Nathan's role only in the significant (eighth inning) moments of significant games, we won't see overuse, and diminishing returns, as a result. There aren't so many relatively significant regular season games, much less significant games where he'd need to come on in the eighth, to jeopardize his effectiveness.

The Bosox game was one of those games. Gardenhire should have sent Nathan out there to pick up that out in the eighth. That he didn't speaks not only to his allegiance to the "proximity contingency" and how that allegiance fetters his managerial decision making; his unwillingness to call on Nathan also demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the reasoning behind that contingency, a reasoning that argues for him extending his closer's role in some situations.

TT said...

Which is to say that you're committing the fallacy of the slippery slope.

No. Since you want to argue that a June game against a team from a different division is similar to a playoff game, then yes you are correct. The fact is there was nothing special about this game or the situation.


Was closer overuse a concern? G


Of course it was. Isn't that the reason closers only pitch one inning to begin with? Warming them up more than once in a game is a concern. And clearly the possibility he might be needed the next day was a concern. Its plainly silly to argue that isn't an issue.

However, I think it's reasonable to believe that if Gardenhire extends Nathan's role only in the significant (eighth inning) moments of significant games, we won't see overuse, and diminishing returns, as a result.

You can "believe" whatever you want. What's reasonable is to assume there will be diminishing returns the more he is used. Any use is going to degrade performance over time, the only question is to what degree. That's why players talk about the season as a grind.

But if you start with the assumption that this was the equivalent of the 7th game of the World Series then you have a point.

BeefMaster said...

Isn't [overuse] the reason closers only pitch one inning to begin with?

I think that's at least part of the logic behind the idea, but I also think that the practice of the 9th-inning-only closer has become so ingrained in baseball management strategy during the last few decades that many managers are afraid of second-guessing if they do otherwise.

I don't want to come across as an old crotchety "In my day, pitchers threw 200 pitches a game in a three man rotation!" guy, but the premier relief pitchers of the 70s (Gossage, Sutter, etc.) often threw over 100 innings in a season in relief. What I'm most curious about is whether there was a history of arm injuries or late-season loss of effectiveness in those high-inning relievers, or whether the switch to 9th-inning-only was made either as a precautionary measure or a strategic/psychological decision; I don't know the answer to that.

TT said...

"managers are afraid of second-guessing if they do otherwise."

I am skeptical of that. If managers spend a lot of time worrying about being second-guessed they are in the wrong job.

the premier relief pitchers of the 70s (Gossage, Sutter, etc.) often threw over 100 innings in a season in relief

The list of those pitchers who were effective that way is short. People are throwing out HOF players as if they are typical of the era. And even they weren't as effective as guys like Nathan.

For instance in 1976, Bill Campbell pitched 167 innings in relief, lead the league in saves with 20 and had a 17-5 record for the Twins. But he also had a WHIP of 1.235 and an era 3.01, barely better than the league average at 3.59.

The other problem is that the difference with how Nathan and modern closers are used went beyond pitching more innings. The expectation in the 70's was still that pitchers would "close" their own game.

For instance the most saves Gossage ever got was 33 and most years he got less than 25. Far from throwing 100+ innings "often", he did it four times in his career as a reliever and only once after age 26.

Sutter pitched most of his seasons in the 80's and is really a transitional figure. He was one oof the models for the modern closer, with teams seeking to fill his role with less talented pitchers.

walter hanson said...

You know part of this suggestion is it's a great idea to bring in the closer to protect the lead in the eighth because he will be great in both innings. The most memorable pitcher we have who is thrown more than one inning a lot is Mario Rivera.

Besides the fact that Mario is a super hall of fame pitcher (once again we have the discussion of making the comparison) there are a couple of times when throwing the eighth might have resulted in disaster for the Yankees. Game seven of the 2001 world series which the Yankees lost and game four of the 2004 American League championship series which resulted in the famous comeback by the Red Sox. So there is a major risk in asking the closer to be good in the second of the two innings (something being ignored in this discussion).

Furthermore there is the question of the circumstances surronding the throwing of the extra innings. In the two examples I cited because of the circumstances of the previous game Mario had two days rest and if he did the job he's not throwing the next day! In this issue being discussed Nathan had thrown the two days before!

Here we have the case if Gardy puts Nathan in at all he's resigning himself to not having Nathan on Sunday (which was tied until the seventh) yet no one mentions the possibility of that being an issue. In an earlier post I showed how Gardy was trying to manage the game to possibly give Nathan Saturday off.

Part of this problem is for years we have a situation of dream relief pitching. We not only had a closer for the ninth that we counted on to protect the lead, but we had the setup man that came in that was magic in the 8th. Teams had to be leading before the eighth if they expected to win.

This year we've had a bunch of games including the eighth where the bullpen has blown the lead. That is the frustration that leads the conversation.

This strategy has worked for years. Lets not question it now.

walter hanson said...

Looks like Boston's manager is stupid according to people like tt. I mean Boston had lost the first two games of the series and the lead of the division. Now was a great time to bring in Pap to get that classic two inning save.

The point is it's a problem with all managers to try to do it. In Pap's case there is an injury situation to from the past to worry about.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN